Someday, if all goes according to plan, I hope to finish another graduate degree and then spend some time studying, interpreting, and explaining how Americans made war during the Revolution. The thing is, I’ve neither experienced combat nor served in the military.
It’s an issue that a very fine and reputable military historian, Professor Mark Grimsley, has taken up a few times on his blog. Recently, for instance, he commented on accepting a visiting appointment at the Army War College:
Would the students — better than 75 percent of them combat veterans — really accept the idea of learning about war from a civilian professor of suburban physique, whose only military experience consisted of eight years in the Ohio National Guard? Most students, I was pleased to discover, had no problem with this.
You can read some of Professor Grimsley’s earlier thoughts on the subject here. Since I’ve lived my entire life in peaceful enjoyment of the liberty and prosperity that others have secured, I’m humbled by his dismissive remark about serving “only” eight years in the Guard. I admire those who’ve served in any capacity. They have both my respect and my gratitude, and those who withold respect and gratitude from them make me genuinely angry. For that reason, I fervently hope that nobody will misunderstand what I’m about to say.
I’ve been thinking a lot about whether a lack of military service is a handicap when it comes to doing military history, and whether having served is a significant advantage. I’ve concluded that it probably makes relatively little difference one way or the other.
I don’t deny that there are certain universal characteristics of warfare that have held true in any time or place. Some emotions and experiences may very well have been the same for a Greek hoplite as for a present-day American Marine or any other warrior. Military service might give you some unique insight into these universals that would be difficult to get elsewhere.
But you can’t assume what these universals are, or what their limitations might be. Maybe the sensation of being charged by a line of bayonets was the same as the sensation of being under machine gun fire. Maybe the camaraderie around a backcountry campfire was the same as the camaraderie in a WWII foxhole. But maybe not. I don’t know, and without looking into it, neither does anybody else. The soldier who endures service and combat “knows war” in the sense that he’s experienced an aspect of it for himself; he knows what it’s like to serve in whatever capacity in which he’s served, and he knows the conditions of whatever type of combat he’s encountered. But a personal, experiential knowledge of one type of war is quite distinct from a knowledge of another type of service or combat.
Furthermore, understanding the environemt, the actvity, of “war” is only part of what should go into understanding past military conflicts. You’re not just dealing with the distinctive atmosphere of battle or camp, but with an entirely different society that existed around the field and the armies. The Continental soldier, the Rebel, and the Rough Rider came from different worlds, with their own assumptions and cultures. The soldier of the past didn’t just do something different by engaging in battle. He was something different, simply because he was born into his particular time and place.
If you’re looking for some profound insight into the past, I believe that solid historical research is still your best bet. If you want to know what a given historical figure experienced and what he thought about it, then go to the archives and ask him. You may indeed find that his experiences and reactions were comparable to those of his descendants. But that’s a question to answer during your research, not a fact to assume at the outset of it. It’s only by approaching past wars and soldiers on their own terms and without preconceived notions that we can get an accurate picture of this complex human activity that shows no signs of going away.
(Bunker Hill illustration from Wikimedia Commons)